The death of at least 45 people in rioting between police and indigenous demonstrators in the town of Bagua in the Peruvian Amazon on June 5th was, among other things, a neat demonstration of what doesn’t count as news in the global village. (See video above of the clash from Enlace Nacional, a Peruvian news service.)

No Christiane Amanpour or earnest talking heads on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer for Peru; just a few agency reports the day after and one solitary great newspaper The New York Times, pluckily providing quality context and analysis days after the event. (The magazine The Economist also provided a brief summary of the events.)

This is a shame: in a world increasingly worried about climate change and concerned with human rights, what is happening in the Peruvian Amazon deserves far more attention than it is getting. And without more people paying attention, inside and outside Peru, the body count will rise.

What sparked the violence was the passing, literally in the dead of night, of a controversial package of laws known in Peru as DL1090 that loosens the procedures for granting concessions and exploration rights in the Peruvian Amazon to industry — notably timber and oil, but with palm oil for biofuels a recent and worrisome arrival. But this move in itself was not unusual; successive Peruvian governments have ignored claims for land by indigenous groups in the Peruvian Amazon — there are well over 200 such claims pending at present — at the same time as these governments have handed out concessions to timber and oil companies.

The question is why Bagua happened now, and not years ago.

In Peru, like all Amazonian countries, the bulk of the population lives outside the Amazon, and poverty is rife. In Peru, as elsewhere in the Amazon basin, governments try to maximize revenues from the interior at the same time as systematically underinvesting in it, since elections are not won or lost in the Amazon.

Over time, a kind of institutionalized ignorance takes root: an attitude that sees the Amazon as a lightly populated natural resource bank, and sees little need to involve locals in government decisions that affect the region. The Amazon is subsumed into a broader quest for national development. This was complicated in Peru by the long civil war against Sendero Luminoso, which encouraged the coastal elite to view the interior through a national security prism. Dissent is perceived not as central to the democratic process but as a potential threat to it.

But you can only push people so far. The indigenous groups of the Amazon have been organizing themselves for many years to push their claims to land rights. They are entirely justified in their belief that, in Peru, these rights are under threat as nowhere else in the Amazon. Claims that elsewhere would have been settled at least a decade ago are still being resisted in Peru by a government unaccustomed to dialogue or negotiating with its Amazonian citizens.

This resistance, inevitably, catalyzed even more organization on the part of the excluded, and the development of a new tactic guaranteed to get the government’s attention: occupying the highways and oil pipelines leading out of the region that symbolize so perfectly the Peruvian state’s concern with what it can get out of the Amazon rather than with what goes on within it. Bagua was the first large-scale tryout of this tactic.

It is likely that we will never know the exact chain of actions that led to the appalling bloodshed in Bagua on June 5th, nor the precise body count. The Peruvian government, true to past form, blamed foreign NGOs and meddling from leftist neighbours, as if its own indigenous peoples were incapable of organizing or thinking for themselves. Occupations and demonstrations continue, and while there are moves afoot to cancel DL1090, there is as yet no sign of the dialogue and mature negotiation the situation demands. Let’s hope somebody in a Lima palace reads Auden:

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

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  1. A very thought-provoking post, David!

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